Let’s Breathe Some New Life Into Obituaries

September 30, 2005
Category: Archive

My father died on September 21. It was sudden and unexpected — a heart attack, at age 73.

After working through the grief, I had to consider how to honor him,
how to share my thoughts with those who knew and loved him, and how to
allow them to share their memories of my dad.

I work in the news industry, so my first impulse
was to look to the local newspapers in metro Denver, where he lived.
What I found depressed me, frankly. What for me was one of the most
personal moments of my life was for the newspapers a (mostly) cold and
sterile service. So I looked elsewhere — and found something better.

Online, I found some venues to honor his life appropriately, and to
allow others to share their thoughts and memories — and do it all my
way, not someone else’s. And I wondered why the newspaper industry
couldn’t do a better job at dealing with death. (Keep reading and I’ll
offer some suggestions on how.)

What I did for him

Here’s what I decided to do.

First, I submitted a news obituary to the Denver papers. Per their
instructions, it was a cut-and-dry description of the basic facts of
his life, with just a few personal touches included — as much as the
restricted format allowed. Of course, I’m told on the obituaries information page, “Because of the volume of such requests, the editorial departments cannot guarantee publication of a news obituary.”

With the Denver Post, I reached one of their reporters, Claire Martin,
who writes obituaries, and passed along my information in a pleasant
exchange. I got lucky, apparently. She took an interest, interviewed me
and my stepmother, and wrote a news obituary
as part of its “A Colorado Life” obit-page feature. Most people aren’t
so fortunate, since on a typical day there’s only one staff-written
obituary feature, usually of people with high community profiles. The
rest of the deaths of the day are included in paid death notices,
labeled as “paid obituaries and memorials.” The price for those is $16
per line, so for a typical day when paid notices take up two-thirds of
a broadsheet page, that’s a decent amount of money (split between the Post and the Rocky Mountain News, which share the revenues as part of their joint operating agreement).

When I called the News, I was told by an editor that unless
my father warranted a special feature story, I should go buy a death
notice. I hung up the phone from that exchange feeling annoyed. I was
also perplexed; the news desk editor I spoke with apparently was
unaware that I could be directed to Yourhub.com,
the Denver papers’ citizen-journalism initiative, where I could place
an obituary news item myself, which I ended up doing. Of course, that
advice might have cost the paper money, had I chosen not to buy a death

The local suburban paper covering the city that my father lived in, the Lakewood Sentinel, offered a simple e-mail address to send in obituary information, which it would publish in print and online.
At this writing my father’s obituary had not been published, but an
editor said it would be; other than some editing of “flowery language”
that some people put in, citizen-submitted obits all run as long as the
deceased lived within the city of Lakewood. (The Sentinel is part of Mile High Newspapers, which publishes several metro-Denver suburban papers.)

You’ll find comments from editors of two of the three papers mentioned above here.

With the paid death notice at the News and the Post, you also get a “Guest Book” on Legacy.com,
on which friends and relatives of the deceased can write their
condolences or memories. That lasts for a month before it’s taken down,
unless someone “sponsors” it by paying $29 for a one-year extension, or
$79 to have the Guest Book live on as long as Legacy.com is around.

The Obituaries & Memorials pages of both papers have the feel of
a classified-ad page. There’s no indication on any paid obituary that
additional information is available online. A single 1-column by 1-inch
text box on the page explains that Guest Books can be found at
Legacy.com. The page has all the warmth of a hospital, and fails to
take advantage of what’s possible with online coordination.

So, while the newspaper industry has a solution for commemorating
deaths, frankly I found it to be lacking — because it does a good job
of celebrating a select few people (community leaders and those few who
are fortunate enough to get the ear of a willing obituary writer), but
under-serves everyone else.

Here’s what I did in addition to the above:

I set up two online memorial areas for my father. First, I used Google’s Blogger
service to set up a memorial blog. I tweaked a Blogger template and
used the blog format to allow his family and friends to post their
thoughts. I sent an invitation to everyone I had an e-mail address for
to join my dad’s memorial blog, which gave them posting privileges. At
his memorial services, I had a flyer with the memorial-blog address,
inviting his friends and family to share their thoughts. People began
posting their memories, and I wrote an essay. It’s turning into a
wonderful memorial to him.

Second, I used the photo-sharing service Flickr
to create a photo gallery with a few pictures of my father taken over
the years. I linked to it from the Blogger memorial site, of course.

(Note: I’ve decided not to link to my father’s memorial blog in this
article. While it was designed to be accessible to anyone, I prefer to
have it be primarily for family and friends. If someone who knew my
father but wasn’t notified needs to find it, it’s as simple as typing
my father’s name into a Web- or blog-search engine; that’s how I want
it. But the content is personal, so I’ve chosen not to publicize the
address here.)

I could have used a number of other services — many of them free,
some charging nominal fees — and got what I wanted to create. But had
I limited myself to what the newspaper industry offers, it wouldn’t
have been good enough.

Citizen-journalism opportunity

The death of an individual — someone who’s not a celebrity, but an
everyday dad, mom, grandparent, etc. — deserves, I think, to be
commemorated and shared publicly however the family wishes. The route I
took allowed that. I would like to see newspapers offer something
similar. Indeed, I’d suggest that if they don’t, they’ll eventually
lose some (much?) of their obituary franchise — just as they’re losing
parts of their classifieds franchise to the likes of Craigslist.

Having gone through the process of creating a fitting memorial,
online and in print, for my father in the last few days, I have some
ideas of how newspapers can breathe some life into their obituaries. I
think they’re showing signs of morbidity.

Here’s my vision of what the ideal newspaper obituaries strategy would look like:

  1. An obit for everyone. I found it offensive to be turned away by the editorial department of the Rocky Mountain News.
    In an era when anyone can publish freely for a (potentially) global
    audience online, that approach is an anachronism. If newspapers want to
    remain relevant in an era of “citizen journalism,” then they should
    accept obituaries from anyone who submits a legitimate one. (A phone
    call to confirm that it’s for real would be smart, as would a system to
    prevent multiple memorials for the same person.) Online, after all,
    there’s unlimited space. The issue the News editor raised with me was the limited space available in the newspaper. Wrong!

    A better print obituary page well might feature full-length,
    staff-written write-ups of the deaths of the community’s most prominent
    people and celebrities, but leave room for everyone else in the form of
    a list of names for additional obituaries to be found online, or
    one-sentence printed obits referencing full articles on the Web.
    Reporter-written obituaries would continue to be limited to people
    prominent in the community, while others would be submitted by family
    members. A further option is to select the best of family-written
    obituaries and highlight them just as you would a staff-written obit
    (something Canada’s Globe and Mail does with its “Lives Lived” feature).

    approach is to utilize citizen-journalism initiatives like Yourhub.com
    and promote full-length obituaries posted there on the print obits
    page. The News currently has no such linkage between the print
    obit page and obits that are submitted by the public to Yourhub.com;
    nor does the News‘ website obituaries area contain any
    reference to Yourhub. (Yourhub does provide a specific “Deaths”
    category for each of the metro-Denver communities it covers.)

    There are, of course, plenty of thorny issues with family-written obituaries. Quality of the writing is an obvious one. The Post‘s
    Martin, who wrote my father’s obit, says, “Most people have a hard time
    going beyond the cliches — smile lit up the room/give you the shirt
    off her back/had a great sense of humor/never met a stranger/loved by
    all who met him(her). People know the anecdotes to illlustrate those
    stories, but they often freeze up when they sit at the keyboard.” Also,
    she says, a lot of families rewrite personal history when the submit
    obituaries. “Sometimes they edit out a lot of relatives, I’ve learned.
    Relatives in the immediate family.”

  2. Facilitate online memorials. I’m not sure if anyone else
    before me has used Blogger and Flickr to create online memorials. But
    people will figure out soon enough that they can utilize such services
    to this purpose. Photo-sharing sites are ideal for assembling galleries
    of pictures of someone who’s died. A free service like Yahoo! 360, which combines blogging, text entries, and photo galleries, could be employed for an online memorial.

    So how about if newspaper companies expand beyond restrictive
    conventional paid obituaries/death notices and develop similar
    offerings? To envision what better online memorials might look like,
    take a look at something like Myspace.com,
    an incredibly popular website (recently purchased by News Corp.) where
    anyone can create their own custom personal page, including photos,
    video, audio, poems, writings, discussions, etc. MySpace isn’t designed
    for deaths, of course, but what’s good about it is the freedom that it
    gives people to design their pages however they like, and include
    whatever they like.

    Legacy.com, which works with
    many U.S. newspapers, is sort of heading in that direction with a new
    product, but it’s not available to everyone yet (and is not as flexible
    as what I describe in the paragraph above). The company has developed
    what it calls “Moving Tributes,” a multi-media product combining
    photos, audio, music, and text, with a simple user interface for
    content submission. The product is currently available (free of charge)
    only to families and friends of American soldiers killed in Iraq and
    Afghanistan. But according to Legacy.com chief marketing and sales
    officer John Bikus, by the end of the year Moving Tributes will be
    available for any deceased person and will be part of all Legacy.com
    newspaper affiliate sites. (Here are a couple examples of Moving Tributes.)

    What Legacy.com currently offers its many U.S. newspaper partners
    are a searchable database of obituaries and Guest Books that survivors
    can use to post their condolences and memories. That’s a fine model,
    but when it came to what I wanted to do for my dad, it didn’t offer
    enough control; one Guest Book template is what you get, take it or
    leave it. I wanted more of a MySpace-like flexibility, not to be told
    how the memorial I was creating would look. (That’s just me; other
    mourners might be happy with using Legacy’s Guest Books to host their
    online memorials.)

    If a newspaper company wants to own the obituaries space of the
    future, I think it needs to offer a flexible service that people can
    use to create memorials to lost loved ones and allow family and friends
    to share their memories. This well may mean partnering with other
    additional online providers, utilizing and tweaking their offerings to
    work appropriately for the topic of deaths.

  3. Change the business model. The paid death notices — and
    since they’re in effect classified ads and presented as such, I’m
    loathe to call them “obituaries,” as the newspapers do — represent a
    significant revenue line item for Denver’s papers. If publishers follow
    my advice, there will be less or no need for people to pay for death
    notices. So am I crazy, suggesting that newspapers dump this cash cow?

    Well, first let me say that to my mind the newspaper-obituary norm
    is inferior compared to what’s possible today by combining the
    strengths of print, the Internet, and “citizen journalism.” Instead of
    an obituary or death notice being the end of the line — read it and
    there’s nothing to do but shed a tear — it should be the opening of a
    conversation about the person’s life. Legacy.com attempts that with its
    Guest Books, yet in the Denver example it’s not taken advantage of. Why
    doesn’t every paid death notice in the Denver papers include a line
    pointing people to that person’s specific Legacy.com Guest Book? (The
    online version of the death notices does include a link.)

    Secondly, people will start to recognize that there are better ways
    to memorialize a lost loved one — because non-news companies offer
    such opportunities (often for free). Perhaps newspapers don’t need to
    eliminate paid death notices immediately, but they should recognize
    that in the years ahead, there will be less need for them.

    So how about developing a new business model — one that takes into
    account today’s realities and isn’t built on 100-year-old ones? A
    newspaper could allow people to submit their own obituaries (for print
    and online publication) and create their own online memorials.
    (Executives will need to get over the fear they may still have of such
    citizen journalism.) Perhaps that’s a paid service to replace those
    $16-a-line paid death notices — but for the money, mourners get
    something much more worthwhile. Guest Book-like memorials can add
    revenue earners such as online sympathy card or flower ordering.

Families suffering a loss long have turned to newspapers so that
their loved ones become part of the community’s historical record. I
don’t think the industry needs to lose that role, but it does need to
modernize its treatment of death in order to hold on to it. A good
start would be to devise a solution where everyone is commemorated
properly, not just the fortunate few who get a staff obit write-up.

Having a family member die is difficult for all of us, and no one
gets to escape it. This is my call to the newspaper industry to start
better serving all families who have lost loved ones properly.

As someone who just went through this, I can tell you that newspapers’ current offerings didn’t ease my pain.